Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Left Foot: Hobbling Through the ACL Festival

Fire Ants. I hate them.
Two weeks ago I didn’t even know what a fire ant was, but today, they’re at the top of my most hated list. Sure, there are other unpleasantries in life, like rope burn and slow drivers in the passing lane, but they don’t even come close.
Yup, fire ants. I hate them.

My first encounter with these nasty insects occurred several weeks ago while in Texas for the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival. ACL is a huge music event hosted every year by the organizers of the TV show of the same name. The festivities are held in Zilker Park, a beautiful 15 acre green space located in central Austin, and include over 130 bands on seven stages in a three day weekend. I’ve been to the festival four years in a row and have seen some amazing bands. This year’s lineup promised to be equally impressive. For a music fan like me this is as good as it gets.
I love this festival.
I hate fire ants.

First on the agenda in Austin was to hook up with my buddy Scott and play a round of disc golf. Disc golf is an addictive activity (I can’t bring myself to call it a sport) that attracts primarily males in their 30s and 40s. Most of them are retired ultimate players whose bodies have finally cratered after years of hurling themselves about a field chasing Frisbees. Ultimate is a real sport, disc golf is kinda like shuffle board in comparison.

I met Scott and his friend Ken at the disc golf course on Wednesday evening. We stuffed the obligatory 12 or so beers into a cooler and teed off. The game of disc golf is similar to standard golf in that you direct an object, in this case a specialized Frisbee, towards a target some distance away. In golf the object is to get your ball into a hole. In disc golf, the target is a metal basket. The player has a specified number of throws to land the disc in the basket in order to make par.

About half way through the round of 18 holes my tee shot landed in some tall grass. The rule is that you play your next shot where the disc lands, so I stood in the grass, lined up my next throw and let it go. No sooner had I begun to stroll towards where the disc had landed than I found myself leaping about with sharp stings on my left feet. I looked down to see a bunch of little black ants feasting on my foot and ankle.

They were fire ants! One moment I had been blissfully strolling through the park, the next I launched my beer into the air and shrieked as a troop of these insidious little buggers attacked me in unison. Fire ants don’t bite randomly. That would give their victims a fighting chance. Instead, they have a remarkable ability to get in position and assault their victim at precisely the same instant.
It’s true. I looked it up on the Internet.

Fire ants also possess particularly odious venom that they inject into their prey. I looked that up, too. It’s a heinous toxin called alkaloid venom (piperidine). According to wikipedia “For humans, it produces a painful sting, which leaves a sensation similar to what one feels when he gets burned by fire — hence the name fire ant — and the aftereffects of the sting can be deadly to sensitive individuals.”

Are you ready for some foreshadowing? I’m a very sensitive guy.

None of that mattered to me Wednesday night on the golf course. I was a few beers into the round and intent on not completely embarrassing myself in front of my buddies. A few ant bites weren’t going to ruin my first evening in Austin. I hastily crushed all the ants I could see and stormed off after my disc.
At this stage I did not hate fire ants. I merely disliked them.

Thursday was a new day and with it came an opportunity to participate in a grand ole Texas tradition. Scott and some of his cohorts had scheduled a float on inner tubes down the “mighty” Guadalupe River, and they had invited some friends and me to join in the fun. I met up with Alec and Katherine, two other pals from Vancouver who were in town for ACL, and we went about getting geared up. (Of course in Texas “gearing up” means filling the car with beers.) The trauma of the fire ants and humiliation of being trounced on the disc golf course were already a distant memory.

Our drive to the Guadalupe wound through some beautiful Texas hill country between Austin and San Antonio. This year the region had been unseasonably rainy, so the shrubs and grass were as green as in springtime. As it turned out, the extra precipitation also resulted in spring water conditions for the Guadalupe. It was considerably higher than its usual September trickle. We were in for a fast, fun float.

We spent several idyllic hours drifting along the river bathed in hot sun, watching the beautiful limestone riverbanks go by, spotting turtles and, of course, swilling beer. Each of us (ten in total) had our own tube, and as a group we had two extra tubes with special bottoms on them for holding our beer coolers. These cooler tubes served as the center around which we tethered our individual tubes. We even had a mascot, as Kyle brought along his dachshund, stylishly outfitted in a wiener dog life preserver. These Texans certainly know how to float in style.
Time was of the essence for the drive back to Austin. After all, I had four tickets to see Spoon play a sold out show in a small club Thursday night. That’s right, I was about to embark on a three day, full-on music festival and was spending the night before it began by watching a live band!

Each year ACL gets under way at noon on Friday, and I’m there to welcome it like the old friend it has become. At least that’s normally where I am at noon on the opening Friday of ACL. This year there were slight complications, complications involving some rather irritated looking bites on my left foot. The bites had been uncomfortable on Thursday, but nothing that worried me. By Friday morning, however, the bites were worsening and my left foot was beginning to swell. So, instead of greeting the festival with my usual fervor, I spent the morning at a pharmacy getting antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids. This year I met ACL in a somewhat aggravated fashion at around 1 PM.
Most of my friends were already there, however, and I soon forgot about my increasing disdain for fire ants as we raised a round of Heinekens and headed off to see the first of many bands.

It’s one of things that make ACL so great; not only are there lots of bands to see and discover, but the outdoor stages are all easily accessible so you can see as many of the artists as you desire. Other festivals have long lines to get into venues, or are so crowded that it’s a hassle to move around. ACL overcomes this by limiting the total number of tickets to a manageable number, thus providing festival goers with the ability to run back and forth between stages to catch glimpses of different shows, even if they happen to be on simultaneously.
Friday’s musical line-up was full of old favorites as well as opportunities to see new bands. I managed to catch (in this order) Joseph Arthur, The Heartless Bastards, The Del McCoury Band (the king of Bluegrass with his band, all dressed in full suits despite the sweltering heat!), Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Peter, Bjorn and John, Blonde Redhead, Crowded House (you’d have been singing along, too), LCD Soundsystem, Queens of the Stone Age and The Reverend Horton Heat. Despite all that coverage, I still missed some notables, including M.I.A., The Killers and Bjork.
The hi-light was certainly LCD Soundsystem. Their albums are primarily the heavy electronic musings of DJ/producer James Murphy, but their shows are 100% live interpretations played by a full band. The crowd bounced, danced and pumped the air through the entire set. Also of note was the Reverend, who seems to have found some new inspiration since the last few less spirited shows I’ve attended. The musical history that he and his band mates put together, including covers of Greensleeves, Bill Haley and Black Sabbath, was truly memorable.

It was dark and had been a long day. The festival was winding down, so we did what any sane group of exhausted concert goers who had just spent 8 hours in 100 degree heat would do – we hopped in a taxi and headed downtown to see another show. We were treated to a noisy, countrified set by Brooklyn’s Oakley Hall.

By Saturday morning, things were getting serious with my left foot. The throbbing had kept me awake throughout the night, and it was now noticeably larger and redder than its counterpart. I overheard some kids calling me “elephant man”. Several adults were somewhat more constructive, suggesting I should “get it looked at”. Well, the festival had hardly started and I was not going to be slowed by some stupid ant bites, so I iced my foot for a few hours by the hotel pool, and was back in Zilker Park by 3:00 to see Steve Earle.

Steve has become somewhat of a protesting troubadour these days, and his acoustic set was not lacking for anti-Bush sentiments. The line “Just another poor kid fightin’ in a rich man’s war” pretty well sums up his attitude. St. Vincent, a solo female artist who also plays in the Polyphonic Spree, came on next and had probably the best song title of any artist at the festival with “Jesus Saves, I Spend”. The only other notable for me from Saturday was Brooklyn’s Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah. Preferring more devilish topics, they had the crowd singing along and boogieing to such indie pop tunes as “Satan Said Dance”.

The reason for my somewhat limited music exposure on Saturday was that I was no longer running, or even briskly walking for that matter, between the stages. I had been reduced to a rather awkward looking hobble, which when paired with the bright red tree trunk that had replaced my left foot, really impressed the ladies. A visit to the festival medical tent had merely resulted in a few Benadryl tablets and a suggestion to lay down for a few hours with my foot elevated.

I took that advice (and the drugs) and headed into town that evening to see Queens of the Stone Age play an incredible gig at another intimate Austin club. It was a show I had been looking forward to for a long time and had bought the tickets months previously. Those nasty ant bites weren’t getting in the way of this one. My sister Beth chose not to go as she figured it would be a testosterone fest. She was right. As my buddy Dave put it, it was the first show he had attended where he felt small. He and I are both six feet tall and have seen countless shows, yet it was the first time either of us had struggled to see over the mass of bulky figures that pressed towards the stage in front of us. Still, it was a magnificent wall of sound produced by QOTSA that did not disappoint. The pharmaceuticals, the beers and the band had me completely oblivious to the state of my foot, at least until on the way out when one of the testosterone crowd lost his balance and stepped back onto it with his shit kickin’ cowboy boot. I literally cried my way home in the taxi.

Sunday promised probably the best line-up of any day at the festival, and everyone was ready for a full on ACL experience, everyone that is except for me. If my foot had looked gnarly on Saturday, Sunday morning it was, well, gross. We hummed and hawed about what to do about it until I insisted that the show must go on. So, we headed back to the park just in time to catch Yo La Tengo assaulting the crowd with a 13 minute guitar based dirge from their latest album “I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass”. They are without question one of my favorite bands, partly because of how they effortlessly shift from this kind of noisy affront to silly pop tunes and even beautiful love songs. Their back catalogue is packed with more gems than Sonic Youth.

We took a quick peek at a thoughtful Irish singer songwriter named Fionn Regan before checking out another Brooklyn band, The National. For a band whose albums are characterized by slow, sometimes folky yet tortured songs about loss and struggle, their live show is surprisingly loud and powerful. The torment and angst are accompanied by frantic electric violin and heavy rhythm guitars. All of it is there to support a lead singer who literally leaves himself, body and soul, on stage. He was so exhausted after their set had finished we couldn’t imagine him performing another song.

Unfortunately, once The National was finished, so was I. As they had worked their way through the set, some tell-tale redness had started to work its way up my ankle. My sister had seen enough. She grabbed me by the ear and pulled me off to an emergency medical clinic. It was quite a heart warming show of concern for her brother (or complete exasperation with his stubbornness, I couldn’t tell) that she was prepared to give up her afternoon to accompany me to the emergency ward. She had only one stipulation – she had to be back to the festival in time to see Bloc Party at 4:30. Brotherly love has its bounds, after all.

There’s not much to report from the hospital visit, other than that the doctor’s first words when he saw my foot were “Ew! That’s pretty disgusting!” He diagnosed it as an allergic reaction to the bites that had turned into an infection from all the dirt and sweat encountered at the festival (and possibly from the Guadalupe River float). His recommendation was some heavy antibiotics and bed rest. He was not impressed when I asked him if it was a problem to get dirt in the dressing and bandages he had carefully applied. He knew where I was going with that, and replied “I guess that’s a choice you’ll have to make; it’s either your foot or your festival!”

Almost as if to spite me, he called the nurse and got her to stick a great big needle in my butt for a tetanus shot.

Solely to appease my sister, I agreed to accompany her back to the festival so that she’d arrive in time for Bloc Party. The sacrifices I have to make to preserve family ties – truly remarkable! We paid our cabbie an extra big tip and got to the park in record time. Sure enough, we had just found a good spot near the front as the band came on stage. Beth danced her face off and sang almost every word as I sort of swayed about and sweated.

Their performance was energetic as always, but I was tapped out. The rest of the evening is more or less a blur to me now. I seem to recall seeing some combination of Wilco, Regina Spektor and Ghostland Observatory, all from afar sitting in whatever reasonable facsimile to a chair that I could locate. With huge regrets and in a lot of pain, I hobbled out of ACL before the headliner, Bob Dylan and his band, had played a single note.

To add insult to injury (literally), that night a wonderful Austin artist named Alejandro Escovedo was performing a midnight set at the legendary "Continental Club" across the street from our hotel. The rest of the gang had a few more beers and went to see the show while I lay in my hotel room - mumbling, sweating and feeling much like Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now.

It was a memorable ACL, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. Monday morning found me in the airport on my way to San Diego, bandaged foot elevated for all to see and smell. I had begun to murmur in a slightly delirious fashion and would not have looked out of place with all the homeless folks in downtown Austin. The murmuring took on a regular pattern, almost mantra-like. If anyone had come close enough, they would have been able to make out the words as I repeated them over and over:
“Fire Ants. I hate them.”

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Blinky Swims Among Us!

WEST GLACIER - For five miles downstream of the Boulder, Colo., sewage treatment plant there are no male fish. In Pacific currents off the Los Angeles coastline, fish are too lazy to hunt, too laid back to bother with breeding. In south-central Asia, vultures are dying of drug overdoses. All because what goes in must come out.
“All domestic sewage, regardless of your location on the globe, will contain pharmaceuticals,” said Kate Miller. “If you can find a human being, you'll probably find pharmaceuticals in the environment.”
Miller works for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality as an engineer and a hydrologist, but she sounds more like a chemist - what with all those crazy long compound names in the parts per billion. Recently, Miller was asked to go on a hunt for fecal contamination - sewage, basically - in Helena Valley groundwater. She was to use certain microbial markers, such as E. coli and coliphage, to sniff out the presence or absence of fecal taint.
But the more she read about sewage-borne contaminants, the more she became convinced that more modern markers would make for a more interesting study. And so Miller added 28 man-made chemicals to her search target, including pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupters and personal care products. On Wednesday, she presented her findings to the Flathead Basin Commission, a multi-agency commission charged with protecting water quality in the Flathead River drainage and Flathead Lake.
Miller's is a compelling story - 32 of 35 drinking water wells tested positive for the chemicals, and of the 28 compounds she chose to look for a whopping 22 were found. Some were 425 feet down, in rock from the Paleozoic Era, a time when Miller is fairly certain there were no pharmaceuticals. Conclusion: It must be long-term contamination from the surface. “They act like pesticides,” Miller said of the contaminants. “They're big, long-chain molecules.” Which means they're persistent and tend to stick around for a while.
“If a cancer patient lives above you and is on chemotherapy drugs, and your neighborhood is on septic, then there's a good chance you're on chemo drugs, too,” she said. Albeit at very, very low doses. Doses, in fact, that probably don't pose much of a health risk. Probably. “The fact is,” Miller said, “no one knows.”
Neither does anyone know how low-dose drugs might affect fish and wildlife, or how a cocktail of drugs, even at low doses, might combine to cause some surprising cumulative effects. The pharmaceuticals - both over-the-counter and prescription drugs - make their way into water systems because they are flushed (think leftover or out-of-date prescriptions) or because they pass through us and then are flushed. The endocrine disrupters - mostly hormones and birth-control drugs - pass the same way, and are known to disrupt endocrine systems in fish and birds, just as they do in humans.
(That's why there are no male fish in the waters below Boulder's sewage treatment plant. They've all been feminized by estrogen, Miller said. The laid-back Pacific fish are happy on Prozac, and the Asian vultures are overdosed on anti-inflammatory drugs, pumped by local farmers into their water buffalo herds before those animals die and become vulture food.) The personal care products - musks and perfumes and sunblock - enter the system through shower drains, then continue on through septic systems or municipal treatment plants.
“None of these systems have been designed to remove these things,” Miller said. “The possible impacts are very poorly understood.” What will a trace of steroid do to an insect, or to a fish? What will traces of many drugs combined do to those same animals? “We don't have a lot of answers yet,” Miller said.
What she does know is that the combined action of several compounds can exceed the sum of the individual parts. And the longer an organism is exposed, the more sensitive it can become to the contaminant. And some compounds - think antibiotics - definitely overlap between species. And most drugs have multiple side effects, both known and unknown.
Fish, Miller said, are especially vulnerable because they swim steeped in the stew 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “That's key, because they can't get up out of the river and walk to a new spot,” Miller said. “They're captive.” There's no escape. Even if the compound has a short half-life, it's constantly being replenished into the system, offering no relief. The questions are so far beyond the answers, Miller said, that science often doesn't even know what to ask. She tested just 28 of the 800,000 or so known chemicals that could pass through our systems into ground - and later surface - waters.
Antidepressants are affecting shellfish reproduction, she said. Blood-pressure drugs are reducing sperm counts in aquatic organisms. Anti-seizure drugs cause neurodegeneration in fish. Arthritis medicines affect fin growth. “This is something that's only been recently uncovered in the United States,” Miller said, “and as a body of scientists we're still trying to get our arms around it. We may have to start regulating the way our wastewater is treated.”
And not just in the Helena Valley, where her study was centered. According to Miller, Missoula-based researcher Bill Woessner found acetaminophen, caffeine, nicotine, codeine and antibiotics in his backyard groundwater. Others have repeated the results around the globe. Miller stresses that the amounts found are astoundingly small - measured in half-parts per billion - and that the effects to human health, if any, are by no means clear.
But she also notes that antibiotics were found in 80 percent of her test sites, “and I do worry about antibiotic resistance when I see something like this.” She also worries that breast cancer and prostate cancer could be on the rise in part due to hormones leaching into drinking water. It's just a hunch, but she's not alone. Her immediate prescription is to stop flushing unused drugs, and to stop overusing drugs in general. Miller recommends taking those unused medicines - be careful, though, with narcotics - and zipping them in a plastic baggie with a handful of kitty litter. Then drop it in the local landfill, which is lined to contain contaminants.
Canada has an even better solution, requiring drug distributors to collect any unused pharmaceuticals and dispose of them properly, at a facility designed to filter out the contaminants. Another answer might simply be better sewage treatment plants, “but we're still trying to figure out how to do that,” Miller said. That would, she admits, be expensive. “We're very early in the research here,” Miller said, “and there are so many things we still don't know. But we've begun looking, and that's an important start.”